‘Catch Me If You Can’ scheme lands Boca flight school owner in prison

In a case being called a low-rent version of “Catch Me If You Can,” a Fort Lauderdale man has been sentenced to seven years in prison for operating charter flights to the Bahamas from the Boca Raton Airport even though he didn’t have a pilot’s license.

Robert Charles “Chas” Brady, the owner of the now-shuttered Beach Aviation, follows in the far larger footsteps of notorious conman Frank Abagnale, whose various exploits — including posing as a pilot for Pan American World Airways — were featured in the 2002 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

Like Abagnale, the 36-year-old Brady has run other schemes. In 2008, when he was in his 27, Brady was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison on fraud charges after worming his way into Broward County political circles by pretending to be a Harvard-educated lawyer.

His attorney, James Lewis Jr., said Brady’s prior convictions, including three counts of unauthorized practice of law, hurt him when he was sentenced on Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Donald Middlebrooks on charges of wire fraud and operating an aircraft without an airman’s certificate.

But, Lewis insisted, Brady isn’t a bad person although the attorney acknowledged Brady may have some “mental health issues.”

“He’s a complicated person,” Lewis said.

Further, he said, no one was hurt by Brady’s schemes. Even though he didn’t have a valid pilot’s license, he successfully manned the controls on dozens of charter flights from Boca to the Bahamas and elsewhere, he said.

While federal prosecutors said many student pilots who attended Brady’s flight school were unable to get their airman’s certificates because Brady wasn’t licensed, Lewis insisted no one was hurt. “I’m not aware of anyone who lost money,” Lewis said, noting that Brady employed certified flight instructors. “Some may have lost time.”

Still, federal prosecutors said, Brady’s actions are chilling.

“Those who fail to comply with air safety certifications and regulations place the public at risk,” Southern Florida U.S. Attorney Benjamin Greenberg said in a statement. Originally indicted on 56 charges, Brady pleaded guilty to three.

Records show that three years after Brady was released from state prison in 2009, he began taking flying lessons and in 2012 opened Beach Aviation. By April 2014, he had earned a license to pilot multi-engine commercial aircraft but only for carriers approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Two years later, the FAA revoked all of his certificates but allowed him to reapply. Court records don’t detail why his certificates were revoked. In December 2014, Brady received a student pilot’s license that required him to fly with a certified flight instructor.

“Neither Brady nor Beach Aviation ever held an air carrier certificate issued by the FAA to operate any aircraft for compensation or hire,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Behnke wrote in court papers.

Regardless, Behnke said, Brady repeatedly flew commercial charter flights, enticing customers by offering discount coupons on Groupon and other internet sites. Missionary groups and vacationers alike were drawn by the cheap fares, he said.

“Brady and Beach Aviation sold at least 700 discount charter flights to paying passengers for compensation to travel to and from South Florida and the Bahamas and other domestic locations,” Behnke wrote.

Lewis said he isn’t convinced Brady’s misdeeds justified a seven-year sentence. “The FAA made him out to be the John Dillinger of aviation,” he said. “He probably took some shortcuts, but he was operating a successful flight school.”

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